Selfishness can destroy a school. We’ve all sat in meetings where a teacher complains how a new plan will negatively impact her, without giving any thought to how that plan may benefit the school and its students as a whole. We’ve seen selfish teachers hijack meetings with their own problems, step on egos, and take their metaphorical balls and go home when they don’t get their way. There are teachers who give not a single thought to how a schedule will affect others if that schedule inconveniences them. Most of the time, selfish teachers are malignant lesions that should be excised with prejudice.
But there is one thing that all teachers should be selfish about.
Teachers should be aggressively selfish about taking care of themselves.
We have a crisis in education. Eight percent of teachers leave every year, while across the border in Ontario, Canada, the rate is five points lower (Source). 17 percent of new teachers quit within five years, and the numbers are higher in high-poverty schools, where students are in desperate need of experienced educators (Source). Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen 35 percent over the last five years (Source). One of the major causes of teachers running for the exits (or never considering the profession in the first place) is stress, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout. Teachers report some of the highest stress levels of all professions in the U.S. (Source)
In some ways, teachers do this to themselves. Most teachers don’t want others to view them as selfish. They don’t want to think of themselves that way, either. We would rather be called ineffective than self-interested. We chose a profession that is all about giving and helping others. It’s one of the major reasons why our employers so easily take advantage of us, and why if districts want a teacher to attend an unpaid after-school event, show up for the school Relay for Life team on a Friday night, or do unpaid committee work, they need only to deploy the weapon of guilt. Teachers give and give and give in service to their students and their schools. They believe that doing so makes them better at their jobs.
When Selfishness is Generous
But these teachers have it backward. Vigilantly protecting your personal life by limiting the number of hours you work under what are regularly stressful conditions doesn’t make you selfish. It’s the exact opposite. Only when you take care of yourself are you able to give generously to others.
Teachers can’t help their students if they’re not at their best. It’s hard to be patient and kind when you’re stressed. It’s difficult to be observant when you’re not getting enough sleep. It’s a challenge to be energetic and on top of your game when you’re tired. When you exhaust yourself because you’re trying to do everything you can to help your students succeed, you’re actually sabotaging your own efforts.
Tired runners run slower times.
Tired spouses are cranky and short-tempered.
Tired drivers are almost as dangerous as drunk ones.
Tired engineers make disastrous mistakes.
Tired cops are more likely to use excessive force.
Tired doctors are more prone to errors.
Tired people perform worse in every area of life. Why should teachers be any different?
The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing–that teachers can do for their students is achieve a healthy work-life balance that doesn’t leave them stressed out and exhausted. They should go home shortly after the kids have left, and find ways to reduce the amount of work they take with them. They should detach from work and eat an early dinner, followed by exercise, relaxation, fun, or time with people they care about. They should get at least seven hours of sleep. Happy, well-rested teachers, like every other professional, are better at their jobs.
Give Yourself Permission to Be Selfish
You, the teacher, are the most important person in your classroom. It’s your presence that makes a difference. It’s your effectiveness that impacts student achievement more than any other in-school factor. You are the reason kids are either excited to come to school or feigning illness to stay home. Parents trust you with their children. Your district will, over the course of your career, invest millions of dollars in you. It’s your obligation to be at your best, and you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself.
So be selfish.
Stop killing yourself under the mistaken impression that working more, giving until there’s nothing left to give, and being constantly stressed and exhausted will make you a better teacher. Give yourself permission to relax, knowing that looking out for your health and happiness doesn’t just benefit you. It helps your students, your colleagues, your family, and your friends. It’s easier to help others when you have first helped yourself.
Note: Many sleep-deprived people don’t realize they’re sleep-deprived. Here are 8 Unexpected Signs You’re Sleep-Deprived
You can read more about this topic in my book, Happy Teacher, and in my upcoming book, Exhausted, available in mid-October on Amazon.